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Montana Shelters Gear Up For Surge In Domestic Violence, Homelessness

An image posted to the YWCA Missoula Facebook page March 25, 2020 tells people the YWCA offices are closed, but they're still here to help.
YWCA Missoula
An image posted to the YWCA Missoula Facebook page March 25, 2020 tells people the YWCA offices are closed, but they're still here to help.

Sheltering in place to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus is stressful and challenging. But for those living with controlling or abusive partners it can be downright dangerous.

MTPR's Edward O’Brien reports on how Montana shelters are responding to those trapped in abusive relationships and who now have fewer escape options.

Erica Coyle says the writing’s on the wall, the stress of global pandemic and economic crisis is already leading to a surge in domestic violence.

"We’re starting to get data from other countries and other cities that are a little bit ahead of the curve from Montana. We know that the rate of violence is increasing every single day; that survivors are isolated with their abusive partners."

Coyle is Executive Director of Bozeman’s HAVEN program which offers an array of services for survivors of domestic violence.

"Many of those survivors, because they or their partners are no longer going to work, they don’t have a break at which they can call HAVEN and receive the support that they need."

Phone calls to the agency have, for the moment, plateaued. But as Yellowstone Public Radio reported this week, requests for advice and help via HAVEN’s online chat service spiked by 300 percent last week.

When Gov. Steve Bullock issued a stay-at-home order for Montanans until April 10, he urged victims of domestic violence to leave their home and stay somewhere else safe. But that can be hard to find, especially now.

An image posted to the YWCA Missoula Facebook page March 25, 2020 tells people the YWCA offices are closed, but they're still here to help.
Credit YWCA Missoula
An image posted to the YWCA Missoula Facebook page March 25, 2020 tells people the YWCA offices are closed, but they're still here to help.

Even under the best of economic circumstances finding affordable housing is notoriously difficult in Missoula.

"Trying to rent a new place right now, it would be really challenging. Definitely a hard time to be renting or trying to find a place to rent," Becky Margolis with the YWCA says.

YWCA of Missoula also serves survivors of violence.

Margolis says the YWCA is also fielding more requests for help, particularly from those experiencing economic hardships in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

"Last week we had a lot more phone calls from people, they weren’t homeless yet, but they were afraid they were going to lose their housing, maybe because they had been laid off or had their hours at work reduced or something like that."

An order put in place by the governor this week prevents landlords from evicting tenants if they can’t pay rent, although rent is still due.

Margolis says YWCA of Missoula is trying to help clients do whatever they can to help cover basic housing needs.

"Helping them figure out how to talk to their landlord, or if there’s friends or family they could ask for help or stay with if they needed to.  Just trying to really help people tap into resources they have in their lives to prevent homelessness from happening."

Bozeman’s Erica Coyle says her team at HAVEN is working overtime to keep electronic lifelines available to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

"And so we’re getting as creative as we possibly can. We’ve increased our online chat hours so that’s now available from 7:30 a.m to 9:30 p.m.

HAVEN’s moved as many services as possible online so clients can still access them when face-to-face interaction is now discouraged. To that end, the organization is working to get cell phones and tablets to clients who may not otherwise have their own.

"HAVEN is considered an essential service, but we’re also wanting to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community. We serve Gallatin County and this is the county that’s being the hardest hit in Montana. So we want to keep survivors in our community both safe and healthy."

To encourage social distancing, both HAVEN and YWCA of Missoula have reduced how many people they can give shelter to at their buildings. YWCA’s Becky Margolis says local motel rooms are a less-than-ideal, but necessary alternative.

HAVEN’s Erica Coyle agrees, adding there are plenty of them to go around, at least for now.

"That being said, I am starting to hear from other shelters across the state of hotels temporarily closing down because they don’t have the business they need to be able to pay their workers. We can’t guess what each day or week is going to bring so we’re starting to coming up with contingency plans A, B, C, D, E, F, G."

YWCA Missoula’s Becky Margolis reminds Montanans that abuse isn’t always overtly violent, that it comes in many forms.

"So that can look like financial abuse – taking their partner’s money that they earn at a job, or withholding money from them. It can look like name calling, put-downs, gaslighting so they pretend that their partner’s crazy. Sometimes it can involve using children as a pawn to gain power over the partner."

HAVEN’s Erica Coyle says everyone is facing a huge learning curve in the face of the COVID outbreak, but she vows that Montana’s shelters will always be there for those seeking help.

"Our biggest concern right now is making sure survivors know we’re still here. Whenever it’s safe for them to reach out, we’ll be here."

The Community Support Center for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault crisis line is 1-800-253-9811. You can also find more resources for survivors here:

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.